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On Patience

My earliest memory of the practice of patience was waiting in response to my parents’ reply to my question, "How many more days until Christmas?" Though I probably considered myself to be the model of patience, I’m sure I drove my mother nearly crazy with my everyday quizzing. The anticipation was excruciating, but the reward was worth it even in our modest household.

Webster’s defines patience as the will or ability to wait or endure without complaint, calmly. It’s a contrary virtue in our society today, what with assertiveness training workshops and fast food franchises springing on every commercial corner. It connotes passivity in the minds of many.

Patience in our development work is not at all a passive stance, though. It reflects a further meaning: steady; diligent; persevering, as a worker. Those words are not descriptive of a passive approach to our work. Rather, it is purposeful attention toward a desired end.

The difference in our attitude has an important distinction. In working with our donors toward a major gift, we will be only marginally successful if we wait until our donors arrive at a hoped-for decision on their own. Most people will not spontaneously offer a major gift. There are exceptions, such as Joan Kroc’s generous gift to the people of Grand Forks, North Dakota following its devastating flood and fire last year. Those reactions to disaster or other highly personal responses are not the rule. Others who respond to our overtures without being asked directly often give less than their capacity would indicate possible. Patience does not mean passive waiting or procrastinating.

Patience in development is a matter of timing. Success in soliciting our major donors is often a result of being sensitive to donors’ readiness. That readiness can be ascertained by our active listening, by making room for their ideas and dreams in our own plans. That may mean suspending our own timetable, our need to meet internal goals, our desire to attend to other major prospects, our compulsion to "reel in another big one." Failing to place our donors’ interests and readiness above our self-interests can disappoint us both.

Case in point. A client recently started our work in the morning by letting me know they had scheduled a luncheon that day with John, a major gift prospect with whom they had been working for a few months. They had prepared a well-done proposal and had a staff member standing by to finalize floor plans. They sought my advice in asking him for a gift of $500,000 to our campaign. They spoke of the need to secure a major commitment to give the campaign a boost.

John is a retired businessman, a volunteer who has made some modest gifts to the organization. He is a keen observer of procedures and has offered useful suggestions to improve customer services. He has evinced a clear interest in the project.

Our conversation went something like this. Is his wife likely to influence his decision, I asked? Yes. Has she been included in your meetings? No. Is she familiar with the project? We don’t know. Are you counting on John to review your proposal persuasively with her? We hadn’t thought about that.

Do you know what other charities they may support? No. Do you know the size of their largest gift to date? No.

How many children do they have? Three. What is their financial status? They’re all professionals. Do you know what their estate plans are? No. Have you considered discussing the possibility of their making both a current and deferred gift? No.

Do you think this is the right time to ask for a gift? Probably not.

Clearly, we needed patience. We needed to invest more time to find out the answers to these and many more questions. We needed to involve his wife in the process. We needed to determine their propensity to give as well as their capacity to give.

Being patient didn’t mean waiting indefinitely. Considering John’s penchant for offering sound advice, we crafted a plan for involving him in pouring over rough plans for the area to house the program. We genuinely needed his input to design it well from a customer’s standpoint. We wanted him to challenge us, question us. We decided to ask him to accompany us on a site visit to gather more information. We discussed how we might engage his wife in the project and how to ask them jointly for a gift. Throughout all of these conversations with him and his wife we searched for information to help us cast the proposal in such a way that it would resonate with their need to give back to the community.

We anticipated waiting only a few more weeks, but we were receptive to clues that signaled their readiness. Indeed, at lunch one day as the conversation shifted to the cost of the project, John folded his arms across his chest and gave verbal responses that indicated he was not ready yet. Pressing forward with a request for a gift would likely have truncated the relationship, making it difficult or impossible to ever achieve the end we had in mind. Instead, he agreed to the site visit the following week. It was obvious that he relished both the intellectual challenge of the project and the relationships that were developing.

An attitude of patience was called for: steady, diligent and persevering. That hardly constitutes inaction or passivity.

Patience is attached to humility. In "On Humilty" I wrote that humility is turning away from self-absorption so that we can be a vessel, a container to be filled with something or someone outside of ourselves. It is wonder and care about our donors that will fill us. We are required to wait calmly with patience for knowing to come about, for trust to arise so that we might ask the right question at the right time. That is a sign of wisdom.

In our common parlance we often refer to the patience of Job. I recently read a beautiful new translation of the Book of Job by Raymond Scheinlind. I was reminded that Job by his example gave us the first definition of patience — the endurance of suffering. But his patience was hardly calm, steady. He was angry with God, railing at length at the injustice of his misfortunes until he was rebuked, first by his younger friend Elihu, and then by God from within a storm.

He responded humbly. "I see that I spoke with no wisdom of things beyond me I did not know."

How often do we speak without wisdom? How often do we presume to judge what our donors should do for our organizations? How often do we ask for a gift in ignorance, bereft of knowledge of those relationships and values they hold dear? How often do we talk when we should listen? We should pay heed to Job in his reply to God, "I am putting my hand to my lips."

Patience. It is a virtue worth cultivating.

Suggested reading:

Scheindlin, Raymond, The Book of Job, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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